Counselling Parents: The Early Stages

The counselling of parents, like most counselling and many other endeavours, is likely to be heavily influenced by what happens in the early stages. If parents come to you and feel welcomed, respected, and understood, they are more likely to open up with the vital information that will enable you to help their children change challenging or harmful behaviours. If in addition, you are able to convey a sense of competence – that you do get what they are up against and are up to the task of helping them sort it out (without blaming them, that is) – you are well on the way to building a trusting, workable therapeutic alliance with the parent, which is likely to further influence the comfort their child may feel with you, should you decide to work with the child as well.

Clarifying: The motivations, expectations, and emotions that bring them

Like any of us bound for the therapy room, we don’t just step through the door “alone”. We are, inevitably, accompanied by our reasons for being there, the expectations and hopes that we have for the therapy, and the emotions we are feeling as we begin the sessions.

Some parents may be catapulted into counselling by an event which has an obvious and significant effect on their child: the death of a family member, friend or pet; a family move; a parent leaving through separation or work (e.g., military deployments); abuse or traumatic events; or a major illness in the family. All of these can cause a child to feel stressed and/or destabilised. In these cases, the parent may know what caused the changes in the child’s behaviour, but not know how to help the child come back to a sense of stable normality.

In other cases, the parent may be well able to describe the child’s changes in mood, behaviour, social or academic functioning, sleep patterns, or appetite, but not know exactly what caused them. “Why has my cheerful son suddenly become withdrawn and fearful?” they ask. “What makes my daughter so worried, anxious, and irritable these days?”

Alternatively, you may receive into your rooms parents that are there involuntarily: for court-mandated sessions in order to continue having custody of their children, or to avoid some other punishment. Their motivations may involve concern for the child, but such parents also have a healthy dose of looking to avoid legal trouble for themselves.

Their expectations for what any sessions can accomplish may run the gamut from impossibly high (i.e., “This expert can fix up my kid no matter what”) to despairing and hopeless (“nothing can improve this situation”). Your skill with respectful, attentive listening (using the counselling micro-skills) will do much to bring unspoken hopes and motivations out into the open where you have the opportunity to begin managing expectations and helping parent-clients formulate workable objectives for the therapy.
The motivations and hopes are inextricably linked with the often heightened emotions which accompany the parent into your rooms. Thus, you may notice the client feeling:

  • Worried or concerned about the child
  • Powerless or helpless because they know that what they are doing is not working
  • Confused and/or uncertain about the best way forward, and the best approach for parenting
  • Angry and frustrated with the child’s seemingly out-of-control behaviours
  • Discouraged and/or inadequate as a parent because the child is experiencing problems
  • Fearful because they do not understand or know what is involved in the counselling process, or how you will work with them or their child (Eugster, n.d.)

A dose of reality: what parent counselling can do

You can assure anxious parents that going through parent counselling is a solid way to reduce their stress levels and increase their sense of confidence when interacting with their child. They will begin to not only have more options for how to respond to various child behaviours, but also know why these work. With parent counselling you, as therapist, can:

  1. Help parents to understand the underlying reasons (often related to parenting or attachment styles) for out-of-control behaviours or unproductive parent-child interactions (Firestone, 2015; Eugster, n.d.; Spencer, 2010)
  2. Help your parent-clients to identify and express feelings related to the child’s difficulties so that the feelings will not interfere with their parenting.
  3. Explore with clients various ways of interacting with the child that will improve the parent-child relationship
  4. Teach parent-clients new parenting skills and behaviour management strategies
  5. Help parents learn therapeutic parenting techniques (meaning, some of the listening and comforting micro-skills of counselling)
  6. Support clients in dealing with other issues causing stress which may be impacting on their ability to help their child (Eugster, n.d.)

In addition, if you decide to work directly with the child (such as with play therapy, filial therapy, or family therapy – more on those in a moment), you will be in a position to observe the child’s progress toward healing and to update parents regularly; certainly with play and filial therapy you will be able to let parents know what general themes are being expressed in the play. You can note for parent-clients that, with regularity of sessions, they have an opportunity to update you on both significant events that may happen to their child in the course of the counselling and also noticeable changes in the child’s behaviour so that the information/observations can be integrated into the sessions.

Does the child need professional help?

Often, parent-clients are uncertain as to whether a professional mental health helper is needed and/or would be useful. We noted the types of life events that can cause problems for children. Signs that a child is having trouble coping and would benefit from seeing a mental health professional include:

  • Behavioural problems (for example: acting out, bedwetting, greater-than-normal anger, or eating disorders)
  • Delays in developing speech or language, in acquiring motor skills such as walking, or in completing toilet training
  • Noticeable tearfulness, sadness, or depressed mood
  • Decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • A significant drop in academic performance, particularly if the child normally maintains high marks
  • Learning or attention problems (such as ADHD)
  • Being either the victim or the perpetrator of bullying
  • Highly aggressive behaviour (such as biting, kicking, or hitting; occasional aggression is normal)
  • Sudden changes in appetite (especially in adolescents)
  • Insomnia or increased sleepiness
  • Excessive school absenteeism or tardiness
  • Mood swings
  • Increased physical complaints (e.g., headache, stomach ache, or not feeling well) despite a normal physical exam by the doctor.
  • Management of a serious, acute, or chronic illness
  • Signs of alcohol, drug, or other substance use (such as solvents or prescription drug abuse)
  • Problems adjusting to transitions (following separation, divorce, or relocation)
  • Bereavement issues (this could include complicated grief if the child is having difficulty returning to normal life some months after the death of a loved one) (, n.d.)

Parents should also be advised that if there are concerns regarding autism or other developmental disorders, seeing a professional for evaluation is a good idea.

This article is an extract from Mental Health Academy’s Counselling Parents: The Basics professional development course.


  • Eugster, K. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions. Play therapy, parenting, family therapy, child counselling, filial therapy, Vancouver, BC. Retrieved on 9 January, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Firestone, L. (2015). How your attachment style affects your parenting. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 4 January, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • (n.d.). Taking your child to a therapist. Retrieved on 9 January, 2017, from: hyperlink.
  • Spencer, R. (2010). CBT and psychodynamic therapy: pros and cons. CBT or Psychodynamic psychotherapy? Retrieved on 11 January, 2017.